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CAS 597 - Special Topic: Confrontation and Dissent (Spring 2018)

Professor: Abraham Khan

Offering an empirical warrant for a novel theory of radical dissent in 1969, Robert L. Scott and Donald K. Smith observed that “confrontation crackles menacingly from every issue in our country, hemisphere, and globe.” Scott and Smith’s theory of confrontational rhetoric addressed the function of New Left speech in the late 1960s, challenging the disciplinary preference for civility and inattention to “obscenity, threats of violence, and the like.” Since then, rhetorical scholars have come to understand the tricks civility can play in establishing and preserving power relations, and along the way, confrontational rhetoric entered into debates about the difference between persuasion and coercion, influenced theories of “establishment” rhetoric, and became an important piece of the field’s understanding of social movements. Beginning with the same observation that motivated Scott and Smith — that confrontation still crackles, or perhaps crackles once again — from every issue in our society, this seminar returns to confrontational rhetoric to discover what it might tell us about contemporary political discourse. We will map confrontation’s trip through rhetorical studies, assess the reasons for its disappearance from critical practice, consider the relevance of social movement theory to the existing sociopolitical environment, and determine confrontational rhetoric’s potential to help us understand dissent in the 21st century.